October 24, Early Afternoon
Lucy Fallon’s funeral fell on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. It was closed casket, of course, because of her practical disintegration, but there was a nice picture of Lucy beside it. A large group of people Cowan had never met came to see Lucy off, friends and guildmates from Chimera: one of the long-term fantasy Sims Kate and Lucy apparently played a lot. Sonne said it was kind of weird.
The official story was as simple and stupid as it got. Lucy died in a plane crash. She had been shot with like a thousand bullets, after all, and people broke up in plane crashes.
Sonne wore a deep black dress and Kate came too, wearing white, because that’s what Chinese people wore at funerals. Cowan felt out of place with so many strangers around, so many people sad about Lucy’s death when he wasn’t as sad as they were. They were all recounting stories about Lucy, or crying, or consoling each other.
To be honest, he really hadn’t known Lucy that well. It made him feel like he didn’t belong here, like he was just a funeral tourist. Still, Sonne had asked him to be here. He ignored the curious looks from the dozens of people he didn’t know and sat quietly.
Kate took the stage after some remarks from an older female minister. She looked calm, and was probably using firewalls to keep her emotions in check, but that was fair, given her best friend had just died. There was still a chance Jeb might die too, very soon, and Cowan had heard nothing from OneWorld since their meeting. They were all waiting.
“Today,” Kate said, stiff hair ruthlessly defying the wind, “we gather to remember one of the baddest of baddesses I ever met, Lucy Anastasia Fallon. She wasn’t just an employee of Benzai corporation, and she wasn’t just my bodyguard. She was my closest friend, and the best healer I ever had the fortune to run with through the Inferno Cliffs.”
Kate had a really good speech, talking about how Lucy had been with her since she was in her late teens, and how she’d undertaken cyberization to be a better bodyguard for her best friend. She shared stories about Sim parties and epic raids and Lucy tossing grabby dudes out on their asses. Cowan archived it for later, so he could watch it when he wasn’t distracted by wondering if Jeb was going to live or die.
Could OneWorld actually save Jeb? Could they get him out of Swiss custody? And if they didn’t, what would life be like for David? Given how Cowan remembered feeling when he thought Ellen was lobotomized, he had a good idea. He wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
Yet comas weren’t the end of everything. Taylor Lambda, Kate and Sonne’s father, had finally woken up yesterday, which made everyone really happy and also raised a lot of questions. For now, no one was talking about brain code. What was important is that Sonne and Kate had their father back, even if they’d lost their sister. Their friend.
Kate was finishing up, and she was crying now, which meant maybe she wasn’t using firewalls after all. “Lucy saved me. She saved my sister, and my family, and as far as I’m concerned she saved the goddamn world, too. She wouldn’t want us to mourn her. She’d want us to live for her.”
Cowan waited as Kate looked around. Everyone watched her from their seats, silent and respectful. Were they waiting for her to say something else?
“That’s it.” Kate wiped her cheeks and shrugged. “That’s all I have to say.” She took a breath and stepped down off the stage. “As you were.”
* * *
October 28, Mid-Evening
Cowan was asleep when David shouted something incoherent, but he was awake quick enough after that. “What? I’m up?” That was when he saw Jeb’s eyes open, not closed, and saw David hugging him, gently, as they both breathed and smiled.
“Holy shit!” Cowan shouted. OneWorld had come through after all.
Jeb managed to smile at them. He didn’t speak, and he didn’t move any part of his body except his eyes. Cowan knew that wasn’t unusual for someone recovering from a coma – Taylor Lambda still couldn’t walk, for example — but they had hope now. They all did.
Recovery from a coma took months and painful sessions of physical therapy, yet Jeb would complete those steps. As David had said often, almost to himself, Jeb Forrester was one tough bastard. They were going to be okay now. Everyone was going to be okay.
At least, as long as Galileo didn’t escape or something.
* * *
October 25, Late Morning
When the autotruck that was to transfer him halted without warning, Gerhard Bayer smiled. He knew they had traveled perhaps two kilometers from Witzwil, the Swiss prison. He knew, because he was one of the most intelligent men on the planet.
He also knew they weren’t supposed to stop.
An explosion rattled the autotruck, tossing Gerhard’s head against the seat, and that did make him jump. The familiar pop-pop-pop of gunfire echoed outside, joined by the snap-hiss of stunners. Gerhard waited calmly, cuffed hands in his lap.
The gunfire stopped, and sparks split the line between the autotruck’s back doors. Gerhard squinted as the sparks worked their way down, and then the doors popped open. Two mercenaries stood outside in dark riot armor, faces obscured by helmets.
Gerhard inclined his head to his anonymous rescuers. “You understand, of course, that I cannot deliver your payment until we’re well clear of the assault scene.”
“We get it,” the man on the left said, slightly shorter than the man on the right. “Come with us.” The mercenary hopped in and opened Gerhard’s cuffs.
“Where now?” Gerhard stood and rubbed his aching wrists.
“We have an escape vehicle waiting, sir, but we need to leave at once.”
Gerhard straightened the collar of his prison jumpsuit and sauntered from the autotruck. He glanced at the carnage around them: melted synthetics, the burning wrecks of autotrucks, and bloodied human bodies in Swiss uniforms. A shame, all of it.
These Swiss soldiers had only been doing their jobs, and Gerhard would have preferred they not die, but his quest to save the world was far more important than a few soldiers. His oversight in Samantha Frederick’s pleasurebox was but a temporary setback.
The offer placed on the darkSim Elite Troubleshooter board (when Gerhard failed to cancel it, of course) had been thirty billion in untraceable funds. Thirty billion to whatever mercenary or mercenaries freed him from Swiss captivity, as well as an encryption key to track the GPS device embedded at the base of his skull. The money was nothing — less than half his Tian sales — and his quest to save the world? Priceless.
A car idled audibly nearby, a manual model. Both mercenaries sat in the front, and Gerhard realized they were actually going to drive it. How novel. He sat in the back and silently approved. OneWorld, obviously, couldn’t track a car without an imbedded VI. The shorter of the two men drove the car away, leaving the carnage behind.
“Where to, sir?” the other man asked, the taller one. The one in the passenger seat.
“I’d like you to deliver me to Zurich Airport.” Gerhard settled crossed hands on his lap. “Once I’m safe, I will wire your convenience fee.”
The man who’d spoken removed his riot helmet to reveal a yellow ski mask, which reminded Gerhard of a Russian nesting doll. A mask within a mask. How delightful.
“You understand we can’t head there just yet,” Yellow Mask said, turning in his seat to look at Gerhard. “The Swiss Army knows you’ve escaped. They’ll be watching the airports. If I may make a suggestion—”
“You’d suggest a boat, or an overland route through the mountains, or perhaps a trip through the GBT.” Gerhard held the mercenary’s eyes. “Do not concern yourself with my escape route. I am quite capable of disappearing.”
“Once we deliver you to Zurich airport,” the man in the yellow mask said.
“Indeed.” That was where Captain Holzer waited to spirit him off to his secret retreat.
The shorter man, the man still wearing his helmet, spoke next. “We’ll deliver you to Zurich airport. Tomorrow.” He stared straight ahead. “First, we must be sure we’ve evaded pursuit. For this reason, I must ask you to shelter at our safehouse for a day.”
That was reasonable, wasn’t it? “You understand I won’t pay you until I’m safe.”
“We understand, and appreciate your cooperation.”
“Very well.” Reasonable men in unreasonable times. “Deliver me to your safehouse.”
They drove onward in silence. Gerhard listened for Swiss helicopters or other pursuit, but nothing threatened. Satisfied, he flipped to his headdesk and plotted a course through his redundant assets. Rebuilding his operation would take years, but it could be done. He would save the world, no matter who stood in his way.
Eventually, the car stopped. Gerhard returned to meatspace in the shadow of the mighty Swiss Alps, beside a charming little cabin. Smoke rose from its chimney. It looked like a nice place to spend a day or two. He hoped they had a decent cook.
Even if they didn’t have anything decent to eat here, he was free once more. Gerhard took in the beauty of raw nature and breathed in the clean air of freedom. He chuckled in the cold as he considered the unrelenting idiocy of his opponents.
Had Cowan Soto really assumed that imprisoning someone with his resources would be easy? Had OneWorld? Something slammed into the back of his head, and he lost time.
When Gerhard opened his eyes again, chains wrapped his ankles, above his feet. Chains wrapped across his stomach and wrapped across his shoulders, and a chain rested cold against his forehead. The chains were cold. He was cold.
What was going on here?
Gerhard realized then he was chained to a block of cement, but it wasn’t a block. It was a floor, and there were raised walls around him, and above those walls was sky.
Beeping echoed through the cold air, and the back of what Gerhard realized was an automixer scooted into view atop the walls. No … not atop them. That automixer was on the ground, the ground below the Swiss Alps. He was in an open concrete grave!
“Gerhard Bayer.” The driver of the car stepped into view, and he wasn’t wearing his helmet any longer. “Or should I say, Galileo?” The man wore a gray ski mask.
“What have you done?” Gerhard fought for clarity. “Are you an idiot?”
“A little over three months ago, you recruited a Russian grayDoc, Doctor Anton Barkov. You offered him half a million dollars and a lab full of new equipment.”
“You fool!” Gerhard thrashed at the chains and found himself disturbingly immobilized. “Is this about money? Thirty billion is not enough?” The automixer was mixing.
“You placed a passive script … I believe the term is ‘killswitch’ … in the PBA of Doctor Anton Barkov.” The mercenary in the gray mask just kept talking. “You did this with the intent to murder Anton Barkov, should he attempt to betray you.”
“Who are you working for? What are they paying you?” Panic squeezed Gerhard’s lungs. “Barkov couldn’t afford you!” It was difficult to breathe in these chains.
“Doctor Barkov did not hire me,” the man said. “I usually don’t reveal my employer, but in this case, my employer insisted I do just that. My employer is Demetri Barkov.”
Gerhard dived to his headdesk, but his simport remained blocked. He had no wireless connection, no way to call for help, but he didn’t need to. He had money.
“Can this Demetri pay you thirty billion dollars?” Gerhard heard the desperation in his own voice. “Do you even know who I am?”
“Demetri Barkov is the nephew of Vladimir Alexandrov. Vladimir Alexandrov is the leader of Mother Russia’s Bratva. Are you familiar with Mother Russia’s Bratva, Mister Bayer?”
A bit of warm wet squirted down Gerhard’s thigh, but that only made the chill spreading through his body worse. “I’m Gerhard Bayer. I’m on the board of OneWorld!”
The man in the yellow mask walked into view. “Pour,” he said.
The spinning automixer vomited gloppy gray cement. It dropped onto Gerhard’s feet in a shock of cold and weight. Nothing should drop onto his feet like that.
“Listen to me, you simpletons!” Gerhard shouted. “I have more money than you can comprehend, more resources—”
“We don’t care about your resources,” the man in the yellow mask said.
“I can make you kings!” What had covered Gerhard’s feet now rolled along his sides, along his arms. “I can pay you anything!” Thick gray wet was filling his concrete grave.
“We’ve been paid, Mister Bayer,” the man in the gray mask said.
Gerhard thrashed against the metal chains. This was a bluff. It was all a bluff, to scare him and make him pay more money. Money fixed anything and bought anyone.
“Forty billion!” Cold cement tickled the back of his neck. “Sixty! A trillion in untraceable funds, and I can get more!”
“Goodbye, Mister Bayer.” The men in the ski masks walked out of sight.
“Don’t do this! You can’t!” Cement crept into Gerhard’s ears, and he screamed for help, for anyone. How could these mercenaries be so stupid? “Let me help you! I can—”
Cement tickled his lips, and Gerhard didn’t scream because screaming would swallow cement. He did not want to swallow cement. This was a bluff! They were bluffing!
Muddy cold devoured his face. He held his breath because he was knew they’d release him, knew they’d pull him free. His lungs burned. His lungs broke. Air burst out in a rush, but there was no air to replace it. Cement forced its way inside him, sputtering down his throat, dirty and freezing. He chewed on mud and grit. He gagged and choked.
He realized these mercenaries were not bluffing.
* * *
Cowan down’d the last of his personal files and grabbed his blue CID jacket from the lonely stand at his front door. His first stop would be Corporate One, where Director Stanton waited with the task force that would hunt down Bayer. Again.
No one had expected Bayer to escape so quickly, but Corporate Security was on it. They would take Cowan’s parents into protective custody. The CID had warned Ellen too, and her fiancé, with the explanation that they’d been targeted by Natural Body terrorists.
David and Jeb were at their safe location, and Kate and Sonne should be fine inside Benzai Corporation. No need for anyone to panic. As for Doctor Xu, she wouldn’t have stayed in Switzerland if she didn’t know how to hide. Now, all he had to do was—
A ping arrived on his headdesk. Was this a threat? Some virus or taunting message planted by Galileo? Cowan dropped to his headdesk and read the message text.
“Pawns Take King.”
The personal redaction on his archived memories cleared, triggered by the phrase and its delivery method. Cowan sat down on the couch as memories flooded his PBA, memories Sonne had told him about. He set his jacket beside him. He shuddered hard.
He remembered what he’d felt for Sonne the night they both got abducted — he remembered how he’d adored her, just as he adored her now — and that told him it was absolutely time to call her, before something else exploded. Life was too short to be afraid of what she’d say.
Gerhard Bayer was no longer a threat to anyone. The redaction protocol Cowan had scripted a little over a month ago, while he and Mister Gray discussed Galileo in an empty warehouse, was complete.
Gray had completed his contact.
He and Cowan had worked everything out that night. They’d agreed Gray would send this message because Galileo would never be found, and Cowan needed to know Galileo was actually dead when he vanished. Otherwise, how would he ever feel safe?
Cowan pinged Director Stanton. She pinged back. He explained why Gerhard Bayer was dead, and how it happened. No one else would know the true fate of OneWorld’s CTO, except perhaps the Office of Mental Health. And the other board members.
Cowan remembered the encrypted panel he’d found waiting on his darkSim island last night, the panel that read “If the board of OneWorld screws you, break glass.” It bore a picture of himself and a timestamp he didn’t remember. It was a redacted memory.
He trusted himself to know what he was doing. He knew he had stored that redacted memory just before he left to meet the board of OneWorld, and he knew he wouldn’t open it until it felt necessary. Whatever revelation waited inside could wait, for now.
Ellen was safe. Cowan’s parents were safe, and he no longer felt so lonely or guilty. Ellen was fine now, alive and sane, with a fiancé and a cushy job. He flipped over to his headdesk. He called Sonne, and she popped into his panel on the first ring.
“Where are you?” she demanded, face pale and worried. “Are you safe?”
He smiled when she asked that. He was, actually. He was actually okay.
“What is it?” Sonne asked. “Why are you smiling?”
He told her where Galileo was. He told her about Mister Gray. He told her everything.
Then he asked her if she wanted to go get some noodles.
That’s all for now, folks! I hope you enjoyed reading Loose Circuit, and if you’d like to support it, you can purchase an e-book copy for $0.99 on Amazon (purchase link below). I’d actually give the book away for free on Amazon as well, but $0.99 is the lowest I can sell an e-book on their marketplace. The Kindle e-book version is more to provide an additional way to read Loose Circuit than a way to actually make me any money (though if you’d like to give me money, I have a bunch of other books that might interest you!)
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